Antique Fishing Tackle: How Much Is It Worth?

I have always loved old stuff. The older the better. Now that I'm old, I'm not so sure anymore about my love for old people – something I always found easy. All the old people I know are younger then me now. But my love for old physical things and antique fishing tackle is definitely as strong as it ever was. As a hunter and gatherer and avid collector of stone artifacts, there are 'old' things on my windowsill that were chipped into shape by a caveman wielding a dear tine, pushing flakes off as he or she created works of art used to fish, hunt, fight, prepare hides, and a range of other functions still unknown. So I understand collectors. It's a real passion.

Antique fishing tackle-South Bend Bait Company fly rod

Antique fishing tackle like the fly rod my friend David Tartaglia just came into are great finds. His mother was holding onto this old South Bend fly rod that was David's grandfather's who had since passed away. The rod was made in the 1940's. I told him I would bet it was worth a great deal of money, but this fine work will be passed onto his baby boy as an heirloom, instead of a fishing rod, which is probably where it belongs. By the time his son grows up it might be worth enough to buy a car or something. If I've seen a truly collectible rod in the past few years, this rod is it.

Back in the days of my youth – the nineteen fifties and early sixties – rods made from what's called "Tonkin" cane were all the rage. You could get cheap ones, and you could get expensive ones. Nowadays, if you look for the most expensive rods in the world, you'll find they're still being made with Tonkin cane.

Collecting and fishing for me have never come into the same room. I have a couple of things that mean a lot to me though. Old fishing stuff. For example, I actually own one of the very first Bagley Baits. I wrote a story once about my friend Dean Bagley, and how Dean and his late father once used nylon women's stockings to simulate the scales on the wooden swimming plugs they once built by hand. It's still in the original package that Dean had designed as creative director for the company. On eBay it could very well draw $50. Easily. If I started with that as the minimum it could run to $100. The old bass lures I have – the wooden ones – routinely sell for that much. People love to collect and they love to collect fishing stuff. So when one of the our team members called me the other day and said that he had gotten his great-grandfather's tonkin cane flyrod, this story was born.

Antique fishing tackle

Fishing is something that's been going on a long time. I have hooks made from deer toe bones in my collection. Made so long ago they're mineralized and protected the otherwise organic material into what most people would call a 'fossil'. Sport fishing, in fact, could be dated back to ancient Egypt, where hieroglyphics of the Pharaoh (or somebody whose face was worth the rock it was carved into) show what is clearly a guy sitting with a fishing rod with hopes that something decides to eat his bait. I would imagine somebody made sure those fish bit the guy's hook. Or maybe not. Hell for me would be a place where fish hit every cast, growing bigger each day until the very thought of the sport caused shoulder pain. I like my fishing imperfect, at best.

Do you have any antique fishing tackle laying around? If you do, and you do not have a youngster to leave it to, you might consider determining the condition it's in (according to the 'experts') and determining what it might be worth. Let's look and see what's important in the world of antique fishing rod collection.

Grading the Condition to Estimate the Value of your Antique Fishing Tackle

There are a lot of subtle things about a flyrod – or any antique rod, for that matter. The company Oyster made one for President Carter – with the Presidential Seal at the base and Jimmy's peanut-farming name written on the blank by Oyster himself. What's that worth? God only knows. Jimmy is probably really nice to that flyrod. I wouldn't fish with it if I was him. There are the doors of those ford trucks (or Secret Service Cadillac's) to keep in mind. But there are a few things to look for that an avid collector sure will look at if you try to get $150 or $300 or even more for an old rod in your attic.

Collectibles fall into one of several grade conditions, which are:

  • Near Mint/Mint (NM/M)
  • Excellent (EX)
  • Very Good (VG)
  • Good (G)
  • Fair (F)
  • Poor (P)

Near Mint/Mint (NM/M): This term is often subjective. A really avid collector thinks it represents one thing, while dealers say it's another. If you're talking coins, the term is quantifiable; in the world of Tonkin cane fishing rods from the forties, it's another. If you take a rod out on the front lawn and cast it a couple of times, you or me would still consider the thing in mint condition if the packaging was perfect, the varnish was perfect, and it looked like it was still behind the counter of a high-end tackle shop during the days of World War II. But if the varnish shows signs of wear, or there is a single mark on that tonkin rod, it would be called "Near Mint" or "Excellent", and not mint. In the coin world, if you take a coin out of the plastic the mint put it in when they sent it to you – and that was done with gloved (hopefully) hands – it loses its Mint condition status. Not so with fishing rods, but handle them as little as possible. DO NOT catch your first Silver King on it. It will show the wear. To be mint, a piece must have all its packaging, labels, decals, and no marks not caused by exposure to the air – something considered to be OK in our world.

Antique fishing tackle-antique fly rod

Excellent (EX): If you think that casting a rod a few times could potentially downgrade its conditional status to professional dealers or avid collectors, you can easily understand how controversial it is for somebody to do the downgrade. But it happens. If you figure that a rod that has never been fished is the only sure-fire way to know it's in "mint" condition, it will not take much damage or wear to move it down a step on the ladder of cash value. Don't think lightly of taking that thing out to fish. Just once can split the rod, or if it doesn't actually get the Ford door closed on it, that tarpon could surely split the cash value in half.

In the case of a cane rod like David's, is the varnish fine and sound, and not soft and somewhat tacky? Are all the ferrules and hardware tight? Any breaks or tears in the thread anywhere? More importantly, has it ever been "rewrapped" or repaired in any way? Even superb repairs move it down another rung on the value chart. Broken tips are another positive road to downgrading. A seven-and-a-half foot cane flyrod made to catch rainbow or brown trout on the streams of Pennsyvlania is not the same if it loses 2" of its tip. It's not the same rod anymore. Broken tips are a major downgrade component in pricing old rods. Avid collectors want original. Original means the tip has never been snapped. No, not even that little half inch that was actually inside the tip when you got it and the tip was inside the tube. Broken is downgraded. And again, at this level, the original packaging – at least the tube or bag it came in from the manufacturer – are expected to be part and parcel of the delivery.

Very Good (VG): Down the ladder of conditions we go to Very Good, or VG. A Very Good collectible rod is one that was probably used to fish with. If you're experienced with rods – especially old ones – you're gonna know if it can withstand the pressure. Somebody that doesn't fish would not know the difference between what looks great and an old rod that looks great but would come apart when the first 20lb snook took hold of that Clouser you put under his nose during a winter dock hunt. A Very Good rod should show no signs of abuse, contain all its original components, and hopefully still accompanied by its tube or bag. A chip in the cork handle, a well-replaced guide, or even a shortened second tip will not downgrade a Very Good rod – again, depending on a somewhat qualifiable determination by the buyer or dealer. The eye of the buyer – you if you're the one – is a big factor. A rod can still be in VG condition if it's missing its original bag, for example. But if in doubt, it's a good idea to step them down if something's wrong. Perfect is perfect, and the top three conditional statements will draw top dollar and be relatively close to each other.

Summary of the Higher End Conditions

Once a rod steps down from VG into "Good" or "Fair", they are the domain of serious collectors trying to round out a complete set, let's say, of one manufacturer's products. To get real money on average, the rod you have should be in those top three. To be there, here are some of the conditions:

  1. Have original finish with no major flaws
  2. Grips, ferrules, and reel seat show none, or slight use
  3. Have to function perfectly
  4. No missing or altered components
  5. Some minor wear is acceptable
  6. Rod is complete in its original packaging and case
  7. Rod was well-maintained and is useable as is

Just an Old Rod...

Below VG, rods can either be in Good (G) condition or "Fair" condition. Again, that does not mean that it is without value – the right collector will pay a lot of money to fill out their collections. I watched a coin sell last week that had three links to a chain showing around its outside rim. That was enough to identify it as the famous "Chain Cent"; a large penny minted in Pennsylvania in the year 1782. Worn smooth but for the barely-visible links, it drew a final bid and purchase price of $12,000. Not bad for a worn-out coin and clearly indicative of the fact that there are people out there that want that old rod you found. And some want it badly.

Antique fishing tackle-Oyster fly rods

This rod is from a company called Oyster Flyrods. They are one of the world's true masters of the craft. Even the best ones when I was a child were nothing like this – or at least I never came across one. Even if you don't have the $5k lying around or the four months it takes for them to make one from the raw wood and thread specifically for you to break in the door of your truck, you should check them out by visiting their site. They are so very beautiful it's hard to imagine actually taking it on my scuzzy boat to fight a 100lb fish. Stupid, right?

Good rods can have been well-repaired and stay "good". They can be heavily soiled on their cork handles, have a broken tip, and show signs of serious use. The attributes have to be considered as part of the whole. The difference between Good, Fair, and Poor are based on how much work it would take to restore it – the degree possible in the eyes of a serious collector – to pristine and redone but original condition. Mozart's piano has been restrung and redone three times since he was seven and wrote the Fifth on it – but it hasn't lost much in the way of cash value.

Rebuild, Keep, or Sell

Most of the Fair (F) and Poor (P) rods we see are bought by people that are neither collectors nor professional rod builders. They see it or find it or buy it and decide to take it on as a project. That's fine if you're thinking about it, but understand that a great old rod can be further devalued if not restored properly. Done by a pro, and a rebuild can be nearly as valuable as an original packaged "mint condition" fishing rod.

With a little research, we have found a company in Altamonte Springs, Florida that will appraise any old fishing tackle that you may have. They have four exhibitions every year throughout the State of Florida. These exhibitions are open to the public. You can bring your old tackle for free appraisals by their club members!

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